LOCAL LIT — “The Civilized World” is a novel in stories. Books written in this style, with plots that flit from the life of one character to the next with every new chapter, often run the risk of creating many shallow characters instead of focusing on one complex personality. But author and Takoma Park resident Susi Wyss is in no such danger with “The Civilized World,” her perfectly balanced novel in stories.
Her concept started small; originally, she wrote one story of a Ghanaian masseuse, Adjoa, with a dream of opening her own beauty salon. While the majority of her novel is purely fiction, that specific tale was based on reality—the reality of Wyss’s back pain. Wyss, like her character Janice in the novel, received weekly back massages from a Ghanaian masseuse. Wyss was curious about her masseuse’s background, but had lost contact with the woman over the years. “The story was an attempt to kind of answer some of the questions I couldn’t answer,” Wyss said.
That single story grew to be the foundation for her novel, but Wyss maintained the short story format throughout the book. Short stories are her favorite to read, she says, because she can follow the characters through an uninterrupted journey. “When I read a novel, I’ll read as much as I can, and then it’s time to do something and it’s time to put it down, and I’ve suspended the dream I’m in,” she explained.
By building the broader story through a compilation of shorter ones, the reader gets the best of both worlds. “For the people who like novels, they get that continuous thread and get to stay with character rather than say goodbye to each character at end of story. But for people who like short stories, they can read one or two and get something out of it. And if you read it all together, it’s greater than the sum of its parts,” Wyss said.
And this novel is certainly more than a jumble of characters and their individual stories. Like the braid featured on the cover of the book, “The Civilized World” is a graceful weaving of lives with a common theme of culture and tradition running through them all. At the start of the novel, a connection between all of the characters seems unlikely. But the stories progress, layers of the story peel away, revealing an intricate twist of realistic lives and the complex emotions of each character.
Adjoa does succeed in opening her own salon, after overcoming a tragic setback, and the Precious Brother Salon becomes the point of overlap for most of the other characters. “I think salons are a very universal kind of environment,” says Wyss, making it the perfect venue for these otherwise unrelated characters to come together.
This novel tells the stories of everyday life for each character, but regardless of the cultural differences that are highlighted, the struggles they face resonate across cultures. So as the characters, both African and American, confront problems like familial conflicts and obstacles to pursuing their passions, the fundamental message of the book becomes clear: “People are the same pretty much everywhere you go. They have the same hopes and fears and desires,” Wyss said.
Wyss knows from personal experience, and aims to show in her novel, that the people of Africa are more than what is shown on the news. “I was hoping to give a more balanced picture of Africa to people in this country who maybe haven’t had a chance to go there,” she said.
Wyss spent eight years in Africa, six living with her family in the Ivory Coast when her father worked for the World Bank, and later managing international health programs, and two in the Central African Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her childhood experience in Africa motivated Wyss to accept the job her Ivory Coast, working to improve family planning, HIV/AIDS education and maternal care programs. “I chose to work in international health because I wanted to do something addressing the problems I had seen as a child,” she said.
The specific characters are not patterned off of real people Wyss met during her time in Africa, but she says they incorporate elements of many people she has known. “The more I wrote, the more they became their own people,” she said. All of her characters are both beautifully written and superbly real. They are intriguing to follow and lend the story an ease and comfort.
Wyss’ s personal connection to the people and places in her novel is apparent, and her experience living in both African and American cultures grants the novel its credibility. The inviting characters and interwoven plot make for a truly enjoyable read that shows us all the things that people share, across cultures and across the world.